10/31/06 12:00 PM
By ED BARK
Saturday Night Live stalwart Darrell Hammond is best known for his impersonations of Bill Clinton. Or maybe you prefer his Sean Connery, Dick Cheney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chris Matthews, Donald Trump or Al Gore. The one that got away still vexes him, though.
After Will "Strategery" Ferrell left SNL in 2002, Hammond got his shot at doing George W. Bush. But he failed to nail him in two on-air tries. Eventually Will Forte managed to make Bush his own while Hammond reverted back to Cheney.
"I would call that the great disappointment of my career," Hammond says in a telephone interview tied to his one-man SNL show this Saturday (Nov. 4). "I think part of it was I was so heavily influenced by Will Ferrell, and there wasn't a lot of time to put it out there. I just never got a handle on it, and it went poorly a couple of times. So I thought it was time for me to step down ... I had no real basic understanding of how to do this guy."
That's a rare admission of defeat for Hammond, who's in his record-setting 12th consecutive season on SNL. At age 51, perhaps it's time for him to go. It's certainly crossed his mind but Hammond finds it tough to kick the habit of "just sort of hanging around drinking coffee and waiting for somebody to ask me to start practicing somebody."
"It's hard not to love playing really powerful, famous people in front of millions of people," he says. "It's hard not to get hooked on that, and I am hooked on that."
None of the powerbrokers he's lampooned has ever told him to knock it off, Hammond says. And unlikely though it may seem, one of his best audiences has been the outwardly taciturn Cheney.
The vice president is "the guy that ended up being the most charming and forthcoming about it, and the most fun to talk to about it," says Hammond, who's attended one of Cheney's Christmas parties. "I always felt when I met him there was a sense of good feeling there. He's just been very complimentary in a general sense."
The Nov. 4 SNL, airing just three days before Tuesday's mid-term elections, will give Hammond an unprecedented forum. No ongoing cast member has ever got a "Best of" special.
"Yes, it is an honor. It really is," Hammond says. "I graduated from college with a 2.1 (grade point average) and really had no hopes, no prospects."
He co-hosted a big John McCain party at the 2002 Republican National Convention in New York. But Hammond's bread-and-butter guy is still the only Democratic president of the past quarter-century. So yes, he'd like to see Hillary Rodham Clinton run strong as a presidential candidate because that would put her husband firmly back in the picture.
"I would love to play Bill Clinton as many more times as I could play him in my career," Hammond says.
He's also done lesser known mockups of Bob Costas, Bill O'Reilly, Dan Rather, Geraldo Rivera, Rudolph Giuliani, Jesse Jackson and Donald Rumsfeld, who wasn't particularly easy to grasp.
"I had to learn to do Rumsfeld a couple of days before the show," he says. "I had to break that down quickly. I finally settled on early Henry Fonda from The Grapes of Wrath."
His sendups of Connery as an Alex Trebek-baiting Jeopardy! contestant are the most popular with fans, he says. The fake Connery's distaste for Trebek makes no logical sense, Hammond agrees. Coming up with the idea "really was just a combination of strong coffee and late hours."
Impressions won't last forever, though. Post-SNL, Hammond sees himself as a standup comic writing his own material. Mimicking famous people would be part of the show, but not to the point where "it ends up being a magic act."
Still, "if I get typecast, then I get typecast," he says. "That's not the worst thing that could ever happen to me in my life."
10/25/06 05:12 PM
By ED BARK
Both the timing and the cancellation were just about right for Comedy Central's That's My Bush!
The president and his First Lady had inhabited the White House for barely two-and-a-half months when this sendup of a '70s sitcom portrayed him as a dumb, amiable bumbler and her as his understanding but often unfulfilled wife. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, had planned to lampoon Al Gore had he won. But they clearly got luckier -- from a comedic standpoint at least -- when George W. Bush prevailed after the prolonged electoral showdown in Florida.
Timothy Bottoms' portrayal of a hapless but well-meaning Bush proved to be comedy gold in a series that ended on May 23, 2001 after Comedy Central said it cost too much to make. The eight exceptionally irreverent and often riotously funny episodes are newly available on a two-disc DVD set retailing for $26.99.
That's My Bush! clearly could not have premiered or continued after Sept. 11th. Scenes such as the president with "Abortion Summit 2001" cake all over his face would have been in awfully bad taste. The president inviting his frat brothers to an execution wouldn't have played too well either. More than five years later some of this stuff is still hard to digest in a wartime climate that's nothing to joke about. Oddly, though, That's My Bush! is testament to how good we had it when its then virginal president was billing himself as a "uniter not a divider." Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?
The pilot episode finds the president trying to split time between a promised intimate dinner with Laura (Carrie Quinn Dolin) and an abortion summit in which he hopes to make "uniter history."
Bottoms, whose career had pretty much cratered in the years after The Last Picture Show, turned out to be both a dead-on Bush lookalike and a surprisingly deft comedic actor. His flustered looks and ill-fated efforts to please are perfectly in sync with the series' throwback takeoffs on loud, broad sitcoms such as The Jeffersons, Maude, Three's Company and Sanford & Son. In a romantic touch, George has a mariachi band play the latter sitcom's theme song for Laura while he's frantically racing back across the hall to his ill-fated summit dinner.
The goofball prez even has a tagline, borrowed from Ralph Kramden's blowups on an even more vintage comedy, The Honeymooners. It's triggered by a loving Laura putdown such as "You're the best. even if you are a clueless bastard sometimes." To which hubby good-naturedly retorts, "Ho, ho, one of these days, Laura, I'm gonna punch you right in the face!"
No, Parker and Stone aren't subtle. Nor is the Bushes' saucy maid, Maggie Hawley (Marcia Wallace from The Bob Newhart Show), who means it as a compliment when she says, "Wow, look at you, Mrs. Bush. You look like a hooker!"
A later episode features a visit from battle ax Barbara Bush (Marte Boyle Slout), whose relationship with Laura is testy even though George insists it's lovey-dovey.
"Is that why, in her Christmas card, she still refers to me as 'That whore from Dallas'?" Laura wonders.
This is the same episode in which George inadvertently pops a few Ecstasy pills during a White House media event tied to the arrest of the 100 millionth drug offender. Bottoms again is a riot, especially after he thinks he sees a man in a banana suit.
That's My Bush! called it a wrap with a "Fare Thee Welfare" episode that has George and Laura tossed out of the White House by a demonic Dick Cheney. The series is then renamed That's My Dick! until George returns to power in the guise of a masked wrestler known as "The Mysterious Loser." A two-faced Karl Rove (Kurt Fuller) had come to miss his old boss. After all, he "was a great man, an honest man, a premature ejaculator, I understand, but very well-meaning."
Creators Parker and Stone remain resolutely immature, which is nice work if you can get it. That's My Bush! ages pretty well, however. It also reminds us that those were the good old days.
10/22/06 04:13 PM
By ED BARK
Shutting Joan Rivers' mouth may be a nigh impossible engineering feat. It's hard to even imagine it in that state. Rivers without her yapper would be Niagra Falls reduced to a trickle-down drip. She is what she is -- a voice box amid constantly changing surroundings. You can nip and tuck her, but you can't zip those lips.
Best known these days as a red carpet fixture, Rivers, 73, gets back to where she still belongs as the leadoff hitter on Bravo's Funny Girls, a new series of standup specials premiering Tuesday night, Oct. 24 (9 central, 10 eastern). Her contribution, subtitled "Joan Rivers: Before Melissa Pulls the Plug," is a bawdy, frequently bleeped attack on just about every sensibility known to humankind. She hates, in no particular order, old people, ugly people, the Olsen twins, vegans, kids, love, the Clintons (and their "ugly daughter Celery"), the Bushes and, to a certain degree, herself.
"I use my left boob now as a stopper in my tub," she tells a mostly receptive crowd at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles. And her dates are getting so ancient that "one guy gave me a hickey, left his teeth in my neck."
In a teleconference tied to the special, Rivers says she's had to change her act or be irrelevant.
"I ratchet it up because comedy is ratcheted up. The times are so rough."
The special was taped before Mel Gibson's infamous drunken tirade against Jews. She now incorporates him into her act, joking that his other car is a gas chamber and that he has an "I (heart symbol) Hitler" license plate.
"I think he's an anti-Semitic sonofabitch, and he should (expletive) die," Rivers says in the phone interview. "He is what he is. And how refreshing that we all now know. The ones I hate are the ones who say they all love everybody."
She has a substantial following in the gay community, and regularly plays off that fact. "Gays booing!" she retorts in the Bravo special after telling a thoroughly tasteless joke about how Heather Mills seduced Paul McCartney.
Without her gay fans, "I'd probably be a dentist's wife in New Jersey," Rivers says. "They just love strong, ugly women. They love Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Liza. I think they love us because we try harder and we're not the stereotype of what we're supposed to be."
Rivers also has taped a pilot for Bravo, Straight Talk, which she describes as "The View with four gay men. We talk about current events, or as we now call it, 'pop culture.' Gay men have the best sense of humor, the best sensibility."
Bravo asked Rivers to do the standup special after hearing about her regular Wednesday night performances at New York City's The Cutting Room. She agreed with the understanding that "I'm not going to change anything."
It seems certain that she hasn't. Rivers' humor is filtered through a sewer pipe, emerging raw, rank and ribald. But she knows how to deliver it while also playing the crowd. Those are her saving graces on a special that's both indescribably malicious and far funnier than expected. Whatever it is, she's still got it.
10/19/06 06:31 PM
By ED BARK
NBC Universal says the Eleventh Hour is nigh for scripted shows occupying prime-time's first hour. The company's sweeping NBCU 2.0 initiative, announced Thursday, is aimed at cutting costs and restoring double-digit growth via the elimination of 700 jobs and the escalation of cheaper-to-produce reality fare.
NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker told The Wall Street Journal that the Peacock's history-rich broadcast network intends to begin at the beginning. The 7 to 8 p.m. (central time) hour gradually will be stripped of expensive comedies and dramas, he said. Advertiser interest in them is waning, Zucker contended, citing the $2.6 million cost for one episode of Friday Night Lights versus the $1.1 million NBC spends on Deal or No Deal.
He said this on the same day NBC ordered an additional 10 episodes of 1 vs 100, a less than cerebral, big-money game show that opened big last Friday. Sample question: "The 2003 movie Seabiscuit featured what kind of animal?" The three choices were "one with fins, one with paws or one with hooves."
It's been a tough fall for NBC in the 7 to 8 p.m. leadoff slot. Friday Night Lights, which opens Tuesday nights and will get a test run at 9 p.m. Monday on Oct. 30, has been held to little ratings gain despite a wealth of critical praise. The network's new comedy combo of 30 Rock and 20 Good Years is faring even worse on Wednesday nights at 7. And Thursday night's Emmy-worthy opening duo, My Name is Earl and The Office, is lagging behind both CBS' Survivor: Cook Islands and ABC's new Ugly Betty.
NBC's only new hit among its six new scripted shows is Heroes, which follows Deal or No Deal at 8 p.m. Mondays. It costs $2.7 million per episode, and that's without any big name stars. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, another acclaimed NBC series that hasn't caught fire, reportedly carries a tab of $3.5 million a show. Much of it goes to pay the salaries of TV thoroughbreds such as star Matt Perry and creator Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing).
NBC isn't the only network looking at the hard realities of higher costs and generally lower payoffs for scripted programming. But it's the first network to specify a time period as a test lab for the phasing out of same. NBC has a long list of written word successes in prime-time's opening hour, particularly in the sitcom genre. The roll call from the last 30 years includes The Cosby Show, Friends, The Golden Girls, Family Ties, The A-Team, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, A Different World, Mad About You, Wings and Little House on the Prairie.
But a little show called Fear Factor also crept into the 7 p.m. slot in recent seasons. That highly cost-efficient hour bore Zucker's enthusiastic stamp of approval in the face of near-universal critical disdain. It was no Friday Night Lights, but it did help to keep the lights on. NBC is, after all, owned by General Electric. So brace yourselves for a possible onslaught of dim bulbs.